CuiousPages - fiction and nonfiction
CuriousPages - fiction and nonfiction
My name is Ray Herring. My childhood was spent in a small town called Loxley Heath and my best friend was Jack Baynes. We used to play football together with a balloon filled with three teaspoons of sand, two cubes of jelly, four straws-full of orange juice, and the remainder with air. Jack worked on the exact portions for weeks. It required superb skill to kick this ball and not make it burst, and the longer we kicked it around, the more the mixture would gel, and when the ball finally broke, mid-air, the rain was spectacular. Mrs Protheroe, who owned two fat bulldogs who repeatedly launched themselves against their garden fence whenever we played nearby, Mrs Protheroe used to chase us up the street afterwards, threatening to let her dogs loose on us if we didn’t come back and clean up the road. Of course, we never did. And she never let her dogs loose on us either, so our games continued.
Jack was my best friend. My only friend really. And I have always been haunted by his betrayal of me.
I was born with red hair—well, it was more like a glowing orange, really. And people always took a step backwards when they first saw me. They would remain silent for a few seconds and then change the subject. At school, some people were not so kind. It was an open secret that my hair was red.
Our French teacher, Mr Newman, was noted for his unkindness. He also ran the army cadets in the school and everyone was afraid of him. No-one dared to misbehave in his lessons, and whenever he passed by in the corridor, the pupils would fall silent and part to let him through. Whenever I entered the class, he would declare, ‘And here comes the red herring.’ Everyone laughed. Probably more to relieve the tension, than at the humour, because I could never quite see the funny side. At other times he would look at me and shout, ‘Are you a red herring?’ Everyone laughed, probably simply because they were allowed to. In his lessons, no other expression of youthful emotions or personality was allowed, so everyone took the opportunity to laugh at me and my hair. I was their vent, the classroom’s safety valve.
After several weeks of this, I stole away to the library one day and looked up ‘red herring’. Previously I hadn’t any real idea of what people meant by it, except that I was their joke in some way. The dictionary definition said:
Something intended to divert attention from a more serious question or matter; a misleading clue, a distraction. Originally in the phrase: ‘draw a red herring across the track,’ etc. (from the practice of using the scent of a smoked herring to train hounds to follow a trail).
So, what was I supposed to make of that? Newman said I was a red herring. My purpose was to divert attention away from more serious matters. I was a misleading clue drawn across the trail of other people like the loitering stench of smoked fish.
From that moment onwards, whenever Newman addressed me, I felt myself to be an insignificant distraction. Sometimes I would feel myself sinking through the floor beneath my chair. I knew I wasn’t doing that, but that’s what it felt like, as though my whole body were collapsing inwards into my spine, and my spine were descending into the floor, like an alarmed snake withdrawing into its hole. And at other times, I was sure I could see his nose twitching as he would try to clear my smoked-fish stench from his nostrils.
‘Are you a red herring?’ he would bawl at me. And, of course, I would have to say I was, because dissent was not an option in his class, and the whole class would then deafen me with their laughter. He created so much tension that its release always came like the screaming of a siren letting rip right beside you.
One day I confided in Jack. I could talk to no-one else. I told him how much Newman’s taunting was destroying me. Jack said nothing.
Two days later, we were walking home when Mrs Protheroe stepped out in front of us with her two fat bulldogs twanging on their leashes as they danced before us on their hind legs, shaking their heads from side to side in an apparent effort to wash us with their spittle. She leant back on the leashes to counteract their determination and yelled, ‘I can hardly hold them back. Stop dirtying my road with your vile concoctions.’
Jack yelled, ‘They are not vile!’
Mrs Protheroe looked at me and snarled, ‘It’s your hair that’s driving them mad. You’re a freak.’
Jack yelled, ‘They’re spitting all over me. They’re disgusting.’
Mrs Protheroe yelled at me, ‘It’s all your fault; I can’t be held responsible.’
And then I yelled back at her—and I don’t know why I said this; it just came out; it was the only thing I could think of to say, I guess—I yelled, in a panic, ‘No, it’s all Jack’s fault; he makes them up.’
Jack looked at me in disbelief.
At that moment, Miss Whetherby, a friend of Mrs Protheroe, turned the corner, saw the commotion, took hold of the second dog’s leash, and between the two of them they managed to withdraw the snarling animals from us. Jack and I walked on in silence. Occasionally he looked accusingly at me.
After we parted that evening, it was never the same again between us. And in the days and weeks that followed at school, my nickname became established around the entire school, among staff and pupils alike. I found out later that Jack had been telling everyone how I hated being called a red herring by Newman. And perhaps it was the all-pervasive, threatening presence of Newman in that school that caused everyone to imitate him, or perhaps they all simply found it as funny as he did, but whatever the reason, I became known as the red herring. I was relieved that I only had two further years to endure in that school. I used to map it out in my mind whenever the taunting started. ‘I only have one year and ten months of this to go,’ and so on. And as for Jack and myself, we never really spoke to one another again, and I’ve no idea what became of him.
At the age of sixteen, I left home, moved to the next town, dyed my hair black, and began my new life. The town had a peculiar name. It was called Perception; and after I’d looked this up in the dictionary, I was drawn towards the town, feeling that if I could not change my life there, then it could not be changed at all.
In the living room of 52 Niggling Grievance Street, Lily Smithe was sitting in her easy chair, Helen Smithe was sitting at one end of the sofa and Peter Softly was sitting at the other end with his shopping basket placed on the floor beside his feet. Helen had been eyeing Peter from head to foot, and she now started making insinuating comments about transvestites.
Peter lifted the front of his overcoat, pulled out Lily’s letter and told Lily, ‘I’ve come about your letter, Mrs Smithe.’
Helen abruptly stood, said she would make some tea and headed for the kitchen.
Lily started talking, but Peter could not quite get to her meaning. He gave up trying, leant forward, rummaged through the basket and gripped the hatchet’s handle. But then his hand start trembling so much that he wondered whether it was right that he should be contemplating using this weapon.
Lily said, ‘But are you eating enough, Peter?’ She saw that he was bent over that basket, playing with something within it, and she called, ‘Peter!’ He looked up, but distantly—as if he were playing in some playground in his mind, some fantasy playground that was miles from anywhere. She repeated, ‘Are you eating enough?’ He did not respond. She said, ‘I mean, who’s looking after you, Peter?’
He looked back down to the basket and saw the hatchet in his hand. He could now barely hold it; all the strength seemed to have gone from his arm, and the muscles in his arm had begun aching with the effort of holding this great weight in his hand. He dropt the hatchet, took his notepad and pen from the basket and mentioned Lily’s letter to her again. She started saying, ‘There’s crowds of people coming to read the gas meter...’ He wrote this in his pad, so that he could study the words, to try to more clearly understand their meaning. While doing this, he heard her saying something about somebody drinking her tea, and her milk—these people always drank her milk. But he was already frowning at the words on the pad, trying to make sense of them. Then he thought about Sally, about the monster that had so successfully possessed her head, causing them to come to hate each other. He thought about the way it was now impossible for him to battle through her hatred in order to communicate with her—her just shouting incomprehensible things at him whenever he got near her. He thought about her affair with Roland, which he was sure she was only doing to show him how much she hated him. Then he recalled the man he had met earlier, the way the monster in his head had made him try to manipulate Peter into jumping to his tune by trying to make him feel guilty. The man had then said, ‘You’re just the sort of person who causes all the problems. Are you stupid——?’ and he had nodded to indicate that Peter should answer ‘Yes’.
Trying to understand Lily’s words on his pad, and listening to what she was saying now, he knew that she too was possessed by one of those invisible monsters. He looked up at her, and he could almost see the monster inside her head, possessing her personality and working her mouth.
He stood up, placed his shopping basket over his arm and made his way round to the back of Lily’s easy chair. He could still hear her words, which now sounded like mockery, as though the monster in her head were making her mock him—as that other woman who had made comments about transvestites had done. He told her not to worry—he was helping her; he would soon stop them; he knew what to do now——
Lily was sitting with her hands in her lap, smiling proudly and saying, ‘Oh, I am impressed, Peter; you’re so clever now.’
He stood behind her chair, looking down at the back of her head. He could feel the presence of that monster inside that had possessed her, and also all those wrong ideas that were the seeds of yet more and more of these monsters; he could clearly feel all this down there in her head. He reached into the basket and gripped the handle of the hatchet, telling that mocking voice that he knew what to do now—It’s okay; don’t worry. He raised the hatchet above his head, and his hand was now trembling so much that he could hardly hold the hatchet any longer, and he was sure he was about to drop it, but he knew he was about to experience a tremendous release, if only he could keep defying those monsters for a moment longer, only seconds now. He felt his whole body climbing into place up there above him, and just when that weapon had become so heavy that he was sure he could not go on holding it any more, his hand then became steady, rock steady, and the hatchet wedged down into the head, again and again and again.
While this release was taking place, a single thought entered his mind; he saw himself transforming into a malicious dark mist and then engulfing Sally; he could see himself—in the form of this mist—pouring all over her, and he could see the horror in her face as he attacked her again and again and again from inside this mist. But he could not let this happen (—They’re trying to make me behave like them; but I won’t let them; I have to find the seeds before these monsters can make me——), and then he thought he could see the seeds and he started spooning them out with the hatchet’s blade (—Get them out! all of them—stop this horror; you won’t do it again; I have to stop you—it shouldn’t be like this—get them out! out——).
He wiped the hatchet clean on the back of the easy chair and made his way to the kitchen. In there, he saw the back of the second head as the other person stood against the sink. He could hear a woman humming, and also the sound of metal clanking against china. He raised his trembling hand above his head again, and he found that this was so much easier now—now that he knew what that release felt like, and also that he was doing the right thing. Then the hatchet wedged down into this other head, and he tumbled with the head to his knees as the body fell to the floor. He bent over it and continued wedging down into the head, digging for those seeds (—Get them out—stop this horror; it’s wrong! You won’t do it again; I’ll stop you—there they are!—out! get them out! out! out!).

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